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Steve Mort-Hill – Principal Artist at Carte Blanche – on the design behind the Me to You brand.
Steve, thanks for joining us. You’re Head Designer at Carte Blanche… How did you come to be there?
I’d been working in casinos as a croupier for over ten years, starting in Bolton and Manchester, to cruise ships in the Caribbean, then at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. I was actually working at the Grosvenor Casino in Brighton in 2000 when I saw an ‘artist wanted’ job advertised in the local paper…
Artist wanted?! This is absolutely nothing like the answer I was expecting! So you were working as a croupier… You were interested in art, though, presumably?
Oh , yes! From being a kid growing up in Bolton, I’d always dreamed of getting a job drawing something – anything… I even did a summer sat in Trafalgar Square drawing portraits and caricatures of tourists when I came back from Moscow when I was 24 – which was terrifying.
You don’t miss it?!
Honestly – even today, with all the experience I’ve gained, there’s no way I’d be able to do it now. But at the time, I was also doing the occasional portrait drawing for people at the casino in Brighton. I was also trying to get a couple of children’s books published, and working on cartoon strips. I’d send them to newspapers and magazines, but they all kept coming back in the post, no one was interested.
Wow. So you saw a job advert for an artist…
Right. And to see an ‘artist wanted’ advert in a paper was unheard of; especially a local one. I had a decent body of past work that I’d kept photos of, so I sent these in along with some new drawings of Tatty Teddy I did especially for the application. I still have them today; they still look ok! So I had two interviews then got a phone call to offer me the job. It’s genuinely probably the greatest phone call I ever had. I couldn’t believe it.
And how did you start? I mean – I don’t think I’ve ever asked anyone this before – but what does an artist do on their first day?
That first day was baffling! I was sat in a studio practicing drawing a teddy bear, the radio was on… Occasionally someone would put on a CD. I was chatting to other creative people, and just walking around making cups of tea whenever I fancied, without anyone asking what I was doing – and I was also getting paid for it. It was weird and I felt like I was cheating.
It’s hard to imagine! So that’s a while ago now… Today, you look after the design interests of Tatty Teddy – the little grey bear with a blue nose… He’s been sold over 80 million times as a piece of plush, and represented on countless greeting cards and gifts in the Me to You range. How does it feel to have that responsibility?
It will be 22 years in November since I started drawing Tatty Teddy, so the responsibility doesn’t carry the pressure that it used to to be honest. It’s difficult to come up with new ideas, don’t get me wrong, especially as Tatty is not an overly active character and so when, say for example, Valentine’s Day comes around again and there are all these new images needed, it can be a bit daunting in that we’ll immediately be thinking “We’ve done it all, what else is there you can do for Valentine’s Day?” But I remember thinking this over 15 years ago and we keep managing it! There’s always a way.
Fantastic! I appreciate the honesty of that answer, thank you. And in what ways has Tatty Teddy changed since Mike Payne first drew a bear for Carte Blanche back in 1987?
Well, initially the bear was brown with a blue nose and he was also part of a gang of cartoon characters called the Miranda Gang. It was a humour range and the rest of the characters were all vehicles for humour, but the bear wasn’t used much as he didn’t really fit in – aawww!
This is easily the best way to start an origin story!
Mike was asked to look into creating a sentimental range using just the bear character; a range simply called ‘Tatty Teddy’. I believe they did okay, but Steve Haines and Mike both felt there was something more to be had from the character… So Steve asked Mike to try different looks and styles for drawing the bear. That’s when Mike drew him in charcoal and kept his nose blue. I think the saying is ‘Hey Presto”.
And they’re quite noticeable changes. Has much else changed?
Even though I’ve been drawing him for 22 years, he’s essentially still the same character conveying the same messages of love and friendship. With Mike being a cartoonist, though, the look of the bear was a bit more cartoony than it is now. He was also bigger on the cards, dominating the space whereas now he’s a lot smaller which adds to his cuteness. All that said, the main change for me developing him is his muzzle.
The muzzle? The shape of nose and mouth?
Exactly. Mike’s look – and also the way I drew him for the first few years – his muzzle was shaped like a traditional bear’s muzzle. But when the plush toy came out, his muzzle was more rounded: he didn’t look right with the same muzzle as the drawings. At the time, we were having discussions about making the drawings and the plush look closer; there were a few things that weren’t aligning…
What kind of things?
Things like length of arms and legs, the number of stitches and where they were placed. Also the colour of his tail… For some odd reason, his tail – in the drawings – used to be white like a rabbit’s. Anyway, the muzzle shape was one of these changes used to tie the drawings and plush together more and I think it works.
So… The appearances of “the bear with a blue nose” are at times motivating, poignant, funny – and more. How do you go about designing a range of cards for this character? What needs to happen for them to work?
Every project still starts like it did all those years ago – with a blank piece of paper and a bit of panic!
Sometimes an image will materialise on the page without much coaxing. It’ll occasionally be spot on: the positioning of the bears, the body language, the tilt of the head, the way two bears look at each other. That’s very satisfying. Other times, you can have an idea and try to get it down on paper but whatever you have in your head just won’t look right. And when you can’t work out why it’s not right it can be very frustrating. The interaction between two bears usually involves the most work because we’re not just sticking two bears in an image on a card, we’re trying to show you what they’re communicating to each other in a moment of time but without them using words.
Given the age of the property, how do you keep it fresh?
There’s no formula really, but we know the brand and keep this in mind whenever we start designing. Designers, product developers and marketeers have their fingers on the pulse of what’s fashionable, fresh and current – and also what WILL be fashionable and fresh as we’re sometimes working years ahead of what’ll eventually come to the marketplace.
Tell me a little bit about the character itself…
Tatty Teddy has a strong backstory, and out of this come the key characteristics and traits that make the brand so universally understood, appealing and loved by millions. Tatty is vulnerable, shy, caring, loveable, thoughtful and all of those other characteristics that are important to us as people. The charm of the brand is that you can send a Me to You card to your mum or your girlfriend or your daughter, and it means different things to each of them and is relevant to the most important celebrations and occasions in life.
We keep it relevant and up to date with an eye on trends, innovative product design, solid partnerships with best-in-class licensees which give breadth to the brand with a true lifestyle focus and a focus on the consumer through engagement on digital and social media platforms and targeted in-store activation campaigns. All of this is tempered by ensuring we always stay true to the brand with Tatty Teddy’s unique character, endearing brand story and enduring brand values that transcend cultural, geographic and demographic boundaries. All of this makes Me to You a truly evergreen brand
Obviously, you may not be able to say too much – but on what else have you been working recently? Tell us a little about that
Just let me get my list…
All I can tell you about really is I’ve been working on ideas based out in the real world, where you will see Tatty Teddy out and about and can interact with the situation, engage with it, a kind of guerrilla marketing. It’s great in principle, but whether it could work in reality is yet to be seen, hopefully we get the opportunity to give it a go.
Well, this has been incredibly insightful, Steve; thank you so much. Let’s wrap it up with a question of your choice… What’s the one thing I could’ve asked you today but didn’t?
Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
Fantastic! And what’s the answer?
Ultimately, I’d like to be living by the sea in Devon with some land, some trees, a stream running through it, growing my own food, swimming in the sea every day… And being a successful painter – but always being part of the Carte Blanche team in some capacity.
What makes that role so special?
Making a brand takes a team and – although I’m the Principle Artist – we have a number of artists and designers in the business who create the products we’re so proud of. I’d like to continue mentoring and coaching the team that are here and bringing on new talent who’ll bring the brand to new heights as we embark on the next 35 years.
Wonderful stuff. Steve, thanks again for joining us. From now on, I’ll be able to tell people I’ve spoken to the man who draws the paws that hold the heart of greeting-card fans all over the world!
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